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A social media group aimed at highlighting the “housing crisis in the South Hams” has gained hundreds of members in less than two weeks, something that the organiser says “proves there is clearly a problem”.
Gemma Marshall started ‘Roof Kingsbridge’ because she was “furious” at the situation she and her family find themselves in. She said: “All the best things start when someone is furious! I was getting so angry that I started the group and thought if no one joins it then I can just delete it and move on, but I was really surprised at how many people joined and felt so strongly about the problems we have in the area.
“Now I want to try and do something.”
Gemma, her husband and their two children, have had to move four times in two years. This situation is made even more stressful as her son is autistic and finds change really difficult to deal with. “It really stresses him out”, Gemma explained, “You can’t imagine the meltdowns we had last time we had to move. We haven’t told the kids that we’re going to have to move again yet.”
Gemma said: “We started to look for another property when we received our latest Section 21 in December.” A section 21 is basically an eviction notice but landlords do not need to give any reason. “We know this is an expensive area, I grew up here, but we can’t believe how expensive it is now. I could understand charging £1,500 a month for an amazing ‘Grand Designs’ house, but for a normal three-bed in a normal area?
“If you do find something in your price range, about 60 people are going for the same property and you’re lucky to get a viewing, especially with Covid. If you do get to view a property, the agents then tell you to write them an email explaining your situation and why you want the property. We are a young working family realistically at risk of homelessness by mid-June and we’re still being overlooked for these houses.
“If you look into buying a house you’re told you can’t afford it, despite the fact that rent is around twice what a mortgage is a month - it’s ridiculous. Most people I know who have bought a house have only done so because they have inherited money from relatives.
A statement that many young people will appreciate when looking to buy a house - Eleanor Mason on Twitter
“We are the normal people who own and run local businesses, work in the local shops, the local schools, and we need to support local people.
“I am not against people having second homes or holiday homes, I have lived in different places and in Italy, people should be able to move around, but all the emphasis seems to be on ‘what can we do for holiday lets’. But if the people who work for the cleaning companies that do their changeovers can’t afford to live here, what happens then?
“We’re the ones who are working here, who grew up here, and we’re being forced out.”
Gemma feels that one of the biggest problems is a lack of social housing for rent. “We have had some great help from the South Hams District Council housing officer but their rules are so inflexible. It took us three months to prove to them that we didn’t earn above their threshold.
“We are now having issues with proving that the kids can’t share a room. I’m all for room sharing, I shared a room with my brother and my sister at different times growing up in a council house in Salcombe, but with my son’s sensory issues, he needs a quiet space to decompress after school. For my daughter too as a young carer, she needs space that is hers, especially when her brother’s behaviour can be challenging. His sleep isn’t great either so she doesn’t need to be disturbed throughout the night.
“Plus, he’s going to be 10 in six months and then they won’t be able to share anyway. But now we’re having to go back to occupational health to get them to write a letter to prove his sensory issues and sleep disruption, which is just a waste of our time and the NHS’s time. It should be judged more on a case-by-case basis. But I also understand that there are still just not enough houses.”
Gemma has taken on this project as she is a person who “can’t sit still” and after finishing her masters degree she needed something else to get her teeth into.
She is currently writing a letter to SHDC, to be signed by hundreds of people from the group. She said: “I’m sure they’re aware of the problem, but hopefully seeing that many signatures will make them see that the problem needs addressing. It’s difficult to see how anyone in power cares at the moment.”
The average house price in the South Hams is £419,574, in 2020, and overall, sold prices in South Hams over the last year were 16 per cent up on the previous year and 15 per cent up on the 2018 peak of £364,693, according to Rightmove. The average wage is £28,485, meaning house prices are 15 times the average salary. And many people in the South Hams would scoff at that average wage, with many earning nowhere near that amount of money. Gemma added “I think there are one or two people telecommuting from Salcombe, earning more money than I will ever see, skewing those figures! We know many local people are working in the hospitality industries, they’re not earning that.”
Telecommuting during the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have pushed up house prices too, both for rent and to buy. As people realise they can work from home, they start to realise that they can work from home in more rural locations and therefore many people are choosing to relocate.
“There is such a disparity between what people can afford and what landlords can charge for rent”, said Gemma, “there is little thought to people. Estate agents are always told that their client is the landlord, not the tenant, and although an agent can suggest a level of rent, the landlord can basically pick whatever they like, and if people are willing to pay it, then the prices just keep climbing.”
Gemma and her family are by no means the only ones struggling. Angela Mead said: “Yes we are having an awful time finding a home. We have been effectively looking since June last year, when we were first issued our section 21. Lockdown has prolonged matters but we need to leave at the end of April.
“We have been looking across two counties, Devon and Cornwall. We specifically need a four bed due to family size. Nothing. What there is is in excess of £1,700. It’s a major competition for each property. Even to view it.
“We have rented over 10 years with good references and a decent budget. But actually could seriously be looking at homelessness in the worse case. It has never been this bad. And yet I am surrounded daily by empty second homes.”
Vicky Moss added: “Try finding a one-bed property that you can actually afford to live in!”
Asked what the best case scenario would be to come from Roof Kingsbridge, Gemma said: “We need to be building more affordable homes. Truly affordable homes. And not always focussed on houses to buy, we need properly affordable social rents.
“Think of the knock on effects, we are in a situation where we are saving every penny in case we suddenly need to move again, or pay another deposit, or pay for movers, and while we’re doing that we’re not spending money on the high street, we’re not supporting local businesses, we’re not supporting the local economy.
“I dread to think about the amount of money I have spent on movers, on professional cleaners so you don’t lose your deposits, on all the hours packing and unpacking, on the days of work missed by my self-employed husband when there is no internet. I don’t think you can really know if you haven’t experienced it yourself.
“Imagine if everyone had that little bit extra in their pocket. We could save for a mortgage deposit too!
“I was explaining Maslow’s hierarchy at work the other day. Shelter is a physiological need, at the very bottom of the pyramid, and yet we are all struggling to find stable and secure housing. The difference it would make to not have to worry about being evicted, or the rent going up, or about asking for repairs to be done in case the landlord uses that as an excuse to evict you and get another tenant, would be amazing.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
“There is no compassion in the system. We’re not seen as real people. We just want somewhere to live.”
Gemma’s nine-year-old son summed it up the best when he said: “Everyone needs a house to live in, so why are they so expensive?” and when a child is dropping that kind of logic, the people in charge need to start listening.
A spokesperson for South Hams District Council said: “Finding affordable rental accommodation across the South Hams as a whole is very challenging. It is an issue that continues to be high on our agenda and we have a variety of ideas to tackle it.
“The first is to support the new build of affordable homes. In the two years up to March 2020, 259 new affordable homes were built and there are more in the pipeline. For example, there are currently 764 affordable properties either in build or proposed in planning applications. Of these, 60 per cent will be for affordable rent or social rent and the others will help to address the demand for shared-ownership. Many of these projects are already onsite and we hope the others will be completed as soon as possible.
“Secondly, we also recognise that the social rental sector alone cannot meet the needs of all of those people needing to find quality affordable homes. In response to this, a few years ago South Hams District Council established SeaMoor Lettings; an ethical lettings service offer. We offer very low cost management fees in return for a comprehensive property management and tenant support offer for those looking to rent out their properties at an affordable rent to support those in their local communities. To date we have around 50 properties across the South West with eight of these being within the TQ7 area. We work with some fantastic landlords, all of whom are committed to providing quality homes to local people on low incomes.
“We are always looking to take on more properties and we are working hard to reach those landlords who want to make a real difference to the lives of local people. For more information on SeaMoor Lettings and how you can support local people to access quality homes please contact us on 01803 861259.
“Finally, even with these efforts to provide more affordable homes for rent, we know that more needs to be done. We were pleased that local people, including Gemma Marshall, got involved with our recent Better Homes, Better Lives consultation, to highlight the housing issues that matter most to them. Following the public consultation, this strategy is now in the process of being prepared. We hope it will provide a catalyst for continued work to ensure that more local people have access to the right homes, in the right area at the right price.”
There are lots of issues connected with a lack of affordable housing in the South Hams and we will continue to follow Roof Kingsbridge and their progress. If you would like to join the group, find them on Facebook here.
Main image: Gemma Marshall
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